Kommun (= local administrative district, "county") in Northern Sweden, 80 km south of the Arctic Circle, on the coast of Gulf of Bothnia (the northernmost part of the Baltic Sea).
Kalix kommun, an otherwise unremarkable subpolar Swedish local district with a population of 18 000, has made recent headlines. Its local government has - for the first time in Sweden - put "e-democracy", "democracy by computer", to actual use in local politics.
Ending 72 years of one-party rule
In the 1998 Swedish local elections, the Environmental Party, the Greens (Miljöpartiet de Gröna), made considerable gains in Kalix, capturing 12 % of the kommun council seats. The Social Democrats, who had held absolute majority in the previous 72 years, were dethroned. The Greens controlled the balance of power and were able to form a broad coalition, headed by Peter Eriksson, the local Green leader.
The new local government took immediate and imaginative steps to increase citizen participation in local politics. Citizens were invited to make their own proposals to the kommun council, all committee meetings were held openly, the venue of kommun council meetings was periodically shifted to other Kalix county townships, outside the central town of Kalix.
Citizen-aided design, by computer
Increased citizen participation led to various new proposals, among them reshaping and rebuilding the Kalix town center. In 2000 architectural planning started. The design ideas were displayed on the web. Citizens were encouraged to discuss and make suggestions on the Kalix kommun website. PC centers were set up in various locations around the kommun for citizens who didn't own computers. Most importantly, citizen suggestions were taken seriously and allowed to influence the planning details. When the new town center was finished, it came to be liked by all. The first Kalix exercise in "democracy by computer" was a success.
This prompted the Greens of Kalix to go one step further. In 2001 some members of the Kalix kommun council wanted to cut the high local taxes. In Sweden local taxes are hardly a trivial matter. They amount to around 30% of personal income and they finance most basic public activities in the country.
E-democracy in action
Deciding kommun taxation belongs constitutionally to the jurisdiction of the kommun council. But the Greens wanted to take the matter to the people. A wealth of objective information on taxes, on what citizens got for their tax money and on what consequences tax-cuts would have, was posted on the Kalix website. A safe computer voting system was devised.
The public vote on Kalix local taxes was taken in 2001, overwhelmingly by computer (citizens were also allowed to give paper votes). Surprisingly, 68% of the Kalix voters wanted to keep their high taxes unchanged.
This unorthodox approach raised political eyebows in Stockholm, Sweden's capital. The toes of the Swedish political class was being stepped on - by the people. The vote in Kalix was put under question - constitutionally, principally, morally. For example, what about all the "little old ladies", who don't understand computers? (This was the reason behind allowing paper voting.)
The people's verdict
Such objections didn't seem to impress the Kalix electorate. In the September 2002 elections, the Green Party got a whooping 44% of the votes in Kalix, almost quadrupling their previous result. This figure is particularly significant in the view of the fact that the Greens only have 4,6% of the vote in Sweden in general. The people of Kalix are clearly fond of their unique grassroot democracy by computer.